Three weeks in the Himalayas: The Annapurna Circuit

This story begins in beautiful New Zealand. Aranka (from now on Didi – which means ‘sister’ in Nepali) and I were cooking at her house in Napier, chatting about what following adventures we had planned. I said that in my case I was intending to fulfil one of my lifelong dreams: to visit Nepal and hike the Himalayas.

It is fascinating to see how life works out sometimes – Didi happened to have the same dream, and fast-forward ten months to the future we found ourselves landing in chaotic Kathmandu together.

Here we were, finally in Nepal! The country known as ‘Never Ending Peace And Love’!

Every single traveller I had ever met spoke of the country with glittering eyes full of excitement and passion for it. “You’ll fall in love with it” – they said.

And we certainly did. How can you not?

 

When I travel I travel with the heart, and Nepal is one of those countries that fulfils it. It grows in you until you don’t want to leave. And if you leave, it’s just your physical body that does it. At times I wonder whether there is still a bit of me in those remote lands.

 

During the first weeks in the country the weather in the mountains was far from ideal, so while we waited for it to improve we took the opportunity to visit other areas. I could probably write a whole article about those three weeks, but two places really stood out to us from that time: Lumbini and Tansen. Lumbini is nothing less than the birthplace of Buddha. Tansen, apart from having a very special vibe, is where the friendliest Tourist Information Clerk in Nepal works: Man Mohan. And yes, he fully deserves the title given by the travel guides, what a charismatic man!

We also faced some health problems – we battled against a pretty bad food poisoning and I also had a tooth pulled out as an emergency in the purest ‘horror movie’ style.

Two days after my ‘dental adventure’ Didi and I decided it was high-time to set off to the mountains – and not just any ol’ mountains, but to the highest and most sacred in the world: The Himalayas.

We were about to tackle the Annapurna Circuit, known as one of the best treks in the world. The route meanders through the magnificent Annapurna region in Nepal and it takes anywhere between two weeks to a lifetime, depending on how you arrange your route!

One of the beauties of this trek is how you slowly raise in altitude from around 900 meters to 5416 metres at the highest point. This allows you to relish the different landscapes, until one day somebody says in an almost regal tone ‘We are now above the tree line’. Another benefit is that your body gently gets used to the physical challenge along the way, so even people who are not as fit can partake.

 

This is not only a journey in a physical way – but also, and most importantly, for your soul, heart and spirit. This is one of those stories that one day you will share with your grandchildren. So take a seat – time to listen to grandpa Fernando!

After some Nepalese-bus-fun we finally arrived at our first stop in the trek: Ngadi.

The first mission was to get some food in our tummies, and nobody could have fulfilled our wish better than Lolita (yes, real name). She cooked us a huge and absolutely finger-licking meal!

Lolita had been running her guesthouse for a long time, and she explained to us how the new road built a few years ago had negatively impacted her business. Many travellers now skipped the first stages of the trek, flying past carried by jeeps straight into the higher altitudes. This would not be the only time we would hear the locals criticizing the road.

We finished our meal and went for a little wander around. This was the first time we met what would be one of our inseparable friends for this trek: the river.

Didi and I looked at each other – it was the first time we could ‘hear the silence’ in the country!

Day 0 – We made it, we are in the mountains!

 

We quickly found the daily pace that suited us, having a ‘foodie-break’ every couple of hours – a coffee here, a few biscuits there, a yummy meal around the corner, a cinnamon roll for extra motivation (Yes, you did read that correctly, they do bake them up there. Are you booking your flight yet?) … The scenery was jaw-dropping, and even though we were a bit challenged at times, we finished every day with a great sense of accomplishment.

Smiling thinking about the next cinnamon roll!

 

And now that we are on the subject, something that deserves special mention is the food – it is delicious most of the time! I still remember when we ended up in what we believed to be a guesthouse, and when we asked for food the whole family quickly engaged with the task: grandma went to harvest the vegetables in the garden, grandpa and the daughter to the kitchen, and in the end we had the whole family cooking for us! They served us so much food that we ended up gesturing to them ‘We are going to get very fat!!’ – seeing how they laughed from their hearts was very touching. These are very truthful people.

Dal Bhat Power!

Even though the scenery in the Himalayas tends to take most of the credit, for me the people living up there were equally as beautiful, and definitely the experience wouldn’t have been the same without them.

They live in one of the most challenging environments on Earth, and this has made them very strong and resilient human beings. Do you think your backpack is heavy? No worries – they will overtake you carrying triple the weight and whistling a cheerful song!

Local carrying hay in Upper Pisang. Annapurna II (7937m) in the background.

There were several times where we bumped into people carrying ridiculously heavy loads on their foreheads (Sherpa style), yet they will greet you with a radiant smile when you cross paths with them. This made me wonder what is it that these people have that we seem to have lost in our Western societies?

Not sure what the answer is, but what I can tell is that they are remarkably gentle and good-natured people. We encountered overwhelming kindness, generosity and smiles around every corner. They seem to care for each other, and if you are travelling through their lands, they will often consider you as one of their own.

During our weeks in the mountains we met many other travellers, but Tomas and Liset deserve special mention. One day we bumped into them and we became friends right away. We shared many interests in common (Permaculture, alternative lifestyles, etc), and they even had friends in common with Didi back home in the Netherlands – small world!

From that point on we would become a team of four, and my daily dose of Dutch increased considerably. Brave people, born below sea level conquering the highest peaks on Earth!

They were great company to hike with, and we shared many inspiring conversations and beautiful moments together.

Reaching Manang, one of the key milestones of the circuit. 3540m.

During the trek many people told me that ‘there is something very special to these lands’ and I most certainly felt it too. I am finding it quite difficult to put into words what it actually was. In a way, I almost find insulting and disrespectful to try to intellectualise those mountains and bring them down to the simplicity of written language.

In a poor attempt, I would say that it is something about the energy of the place. It feels very high and vibrant there, yet gentle and inviting to reflection. Mystical. Pure. Sacred.

Even people who do not consider themselves spiritual start using adjectives along those lines. The Himalayas awaken the spirit.

Spending time observing the mountains makes you understand why the locals revere them so much. They have a humbling effect on you. Your ego dissolves. And that is probably the thing I love the most about Nature.

Who are you beside a 7000m mountain?

 

During my hike I was reading ‘The Tibetan book of living and dying’, a masterpiece which I highly recommend. The book often quotes Milarepa, the Tibetan poet. One night I went to sleep after reading one of his deeply beautiful poems, and the timing and place could not have been better – the true meaning of the poems really begins to come alive once you spend some time in those mountains.

The following morning when we started the trek I bumped into the following sign:

 

Milarepa’s Cave? Hold on a minute…

And then reality struck me hard – these lands were no showroom. These lands were the real deal. In here is where many Lamas, philosophers and key figures of Tibetan Buddhism lived, live, and will live.

Milarepa had spent many years in that cave writing his poems. Had last night’s poem been written a few hundred meters away from the bed where I read it?

Unfortunately, we did not visit the cave, but the mountains were about to give us a different yet precious gift. We had been talking to a Tibetan man in the guesthouse who was working in the backyard planting apple trees (yes, they actually grow Apple trees in the Himalayas, surprise!).

That day we had decided to take an alternative route, and he spotted us walking past. And then is when the magic happened: one of the nuns of the monastery up the mountain (called Sher Gompa) was walking a few meters ahead of us. The man noticed this, and he spontaneously asked her whether we could visit the monastery.

She did not speak English, but she happily gestured us to follow her. To understand how special this is – this is a monastery where four nuns live for three years, three months and three days in retreat, very high in the mountains, and normally no tourist are allowed to visit.

And before we could realize what was happening we were in the main room of the monastery. They kindly offered us a seat and a warm cup of tea. It was time for their morning prayer.

They started chanting and believe me their voices were truly beautiful. By now I have seen a fair amount of Buddhist rituals in many countries around the world, but this one reached deeper inside of me. The most special thing for me was not the chanting itself, but the silences in-between. You could clearly hear how calmly they sipped their tea. The whole experience invited to deep reflection. The energy felt the exact opposite to commuting in London at rush hour on the tube!

We felt blessed to be able to witness something like this. It felt real, intimate, magical.

When we left we were all floaty, with wide smiles on our faces, and hearts double the size! But another thing was about to happen – we looked in front of us, and what was there? The Annapurna III, the first time we saw that peak! This meant we were making progress on the circuit!

 

Annapurna III in the background, 7555m.

 

We continued walking, and who did we bump into at the next village of the trail? The man of the Apple orchard of course!

His name was ‘Sherpa One Tuk’ (or something similar) and he came from a seven-generations-old lineage of Lamas. In fact, his grand-grandfather had re-built the monastery we had visited, and someone further back in the lineage had built the monastery in the village nearby. His little brother was studying in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama to become a Lama too, thus continuing the tradition of the family. You can imagine how relevant his family must be in the area!

As for Sherpa One Tuk, even though he had spent a big part of his life as a monk, in the end he went for a different life path and there he was planting apple trees! He shared with us so many facts and stories about the land, and we enjoyed listening to him very much. He was smiley, friendly, warm and very wise indeed.

He joked about us staying there planting apple trees with him, and if I had had more time I wouldn’t have thought twice about it! In fact, I still think at times about taking a flight and finding him again. Who knows, maybe our paths will cross again one day.

 

We continued our way up, and day by day the scenery became more magnificent. Oxygen started lacking, and it was replaced by pure white snow. Not a happy change for the lungs, but the snow was certainly visually appealing. May this be where the word breath-taking comes from? I will let you be the judge:

 

Another benefit of the higher altitudes is that the contaminating jeeps don’t reach this high (yet). Convoys are still used to carrying food to the people living up here. This is their life, and this is how things have always been. Unfortunately, most of the donkeys and mountain horses sadly have become redundant.

A convoy made up of one man, one kid and a few donkeys overtook us. We were walking behind the donkey carrying the little Tibetan kid. And then something deeply moving happened: The kid started singing a Tibetan song. Even though we had no idea what the song was about, it felt like one of those travelling ones, like the ones sung by his ancestors for millennia whilst they were migrating through these rugged lands.

His voice was immensely touching and beautiful. It felt as real and pure as life gets.

Didi and I gazed at each other and no words were necessary. We acknowledged the beauty of the moment and walked in silence behind the convoy, mesmerized by the singing of this little kid. Words are not enough to describe it, and I still grow teary now writing these lines.

Sometimes I wish I had recorded it, probably in an attempt to capture the magic of the moment so that I would be able to replay it anytime, but then I realize how silly this idea is. It certainly would not be the same through a cold and soul-less speaker. Can magic be replayed? I doubt it.

Something important that I learnt during these years travelling: we can relate to a degree with the stories we are told, but stories will never make us hear the magic of the Tibetan kid singing straight to our hearts if we stay on our sofa at home. Period.

 

Eventually, the big day came, the day that we had been preparing for during the last months. We were about to tackle one of the highest navigable mountain passes in the world: Thorong La Pass at 5416 metres!

We slept in Thorong Phedi, at 4420m. Sleeping at these altitudes is no easy task, especially when you are excited (and slightly worried) about the next day. This pass is no joke and in previous years people have died due to unexpected shifts in the weather. The hours prior to attempting the pass were ones of inner questions for me.

We woke up and had breakfast. Through the window we saw a trail of head-torches – people were already walking up even before sunrise. We decided to wait until a bit later to avoid the possibility of dangerous frostbite.

We came outside. It was 4:30am. Minus fifteen degrees. Everything covered in pristine white. My heart was beating strong with equal amounts of fear and excitement. Today was the big day.

And there, about to face one of the greatest challenges of my life, I witnessed the purest sunrise I have ever seen:

Could it get any purer than this?

 

The sunrise comforted my heart and gave me strength. I turned around and looked uphill – to the path we were about to face. I suddenly knew we would make it. The mountains had decided to allow us succeed today.

We started the climb up and bumped into a girl that we had met the previous day doing acclimatization. Acclimatization is a practice done when hiking at these high altitudes in order to lessen the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). When you arrive to the place where you are going to sleep that night you leave your backpack in your room and continue climbing up for an hour or so, before returning back down to your room. The idea is to sleep below the maximum altitude you reached that day so you give time to your body to adapt itself to the decreased amount of oxygen.

The day before this girl looked all pro and fit as she walked up the mountain like if it was a Sunday stroll (but at almost 5000 meters).

This time, however, she was being carried down by her guide and porters. She recognized me, looked straight into my eyes, and in the fleeting second we crossed paths she mumbled a dooming ‘I hope you make it’.

There you go, the motivation from the sunrise vanished in the blink of an eye!

I put new nappies on, focused my mind, and said to myself that this was time to take things seriously. I fixated my breathing pattern and set a walking pace that eventually would bring me to the top. I was ‘in the zone’ – and I loved it!

On the other hand, Didi was having a rough time. The altitude was greatly challenging her, and by the time we were approaching the top she confirmed my worst fears – she was feeling the symptoms of AMS: Lightheaded, difficulty to breathe, headache, and overall weakness.

Altitude has to be taken very seriously, and AMS has no mercy, even with the most skilled and prepared trekkers. The only solution for AMS is coming down – down as fast as you can.

We were only twenty minutes away from the pass, and we pondered our options. I felt strong myself, and this was time to go all-in for the two of us.

The last 20 minutes before the pass.

 

I spoke to Didi and offered all I had: physical support, moral support, and of course, chocolate (that was probably the most helpful one!).

Didi always says ‘I am a chewy cookie, not a tough cookie!’, but I disagree: Aranka is one of the strongest human beings I have ever met.

I have never heard of chewy-cookies hiking at 5000m altitude, have you?

 

She drank some water with electrolytes, ate chocolate, and I took as many kilos as I could from her backpack. This supposed an extra challenge for me, as a few kg at 5400m are VERY heavy. But this did not matter, we had come to this together, and we would succeed as a team.

And we certainly did!

Success! Thorong La Pass, 5416m. Probably one of the happiest moments in our lives!

 

Reaching the top was very special, and I will surely remember the feeling for the rest of my life. We all hugged and congratulated each other, and even the AMS symptoms mysteriously vanished!

And … well, it was time to share a little surprise. I had been carrying for months a very stinky backpack (Didi can endorse this) and it did pay off in the end – I pulled out a wonderful cheese from New Zealand that I had brought all the way here just to celebrate this moment. What a success that was!

But that was just half of the challenge – in fact coming down was the most demanding part in my opinion. We still had to descend 1600 meters all the way to Muktinah through ice and snow, and this definitely did not make our knees too happy.

For Didi this was a real torture because of her knee injuries from her past as a professional dancer. With tears in her eyes due to the pain and hardly able to walk anymore, she made it all the way to the hotel room by herself, without allowing me to help her.

Have you ever heard the typical ‘travelling pushes your boundaries’? Well – this story is a good example of it.

Needless to say, I am so ever proud of this ‘chewy cookie’, and I deeply respect her for her inner strength, drive and commitment to her dreams.

As you can imagine this experience taught us many things, but these lessons and understandings belong to us – you will need to go out there and find your own experiences and your own truth.

 

It has been eight months now since my footsteps started to melt away in that pristine snow.

Would I still see them if I look back?

Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher, said that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

One day you wake up, come out of your room, and there in front of you the Himalayas are awakening. Their peaks shine in golden tones greeting the day. Filled with gratitude, you stretch your body up so your enlarged spirit still fits within.

You can’t help but utter the words ‘this is what life is about’.

 

Another day, you wake up and put your office suit on. Time to embark on a long and draining commute to that unfulfilling job which ‘pays the bills’. This time there is no need to stretch, as there is plenty of room for your diminished spirit to move around. You better fill up that empty space somehow. Maybe the new iPhone would do this time?

And then I dare to ask – what words should your mouth utter this time?

 

Do you remember Milarepa, the Tibetan poet I mentioned before? Time for him to utter some words:

Deep in the wild mountains
is a strange marketplace
where you can trade the hassle and noise
of everyday life
for eternal Light.

– Milarepa

2 thoughts on “Three weeks in the Himalayas: The Annapurna Circuit

  1. Beautifully written and very special to read about your experiences that you have experienced with my daughter. All the best and warm wishes, Christine

  2. Waaaooo, Fernando, such a good article… and amazing experience. I’m so happy for both of you. Thank you for sharing. You are such an inspirationnal person. Thank you, again.

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